Sallith completed his account of the travesty in the arena. It was for Claudia’s benefit, but even so, no one knew what to say about the events he described. The city was taken, and the Fey, Merrian, and the extremist Ven Quari elves were all involved.
“This has to be a mistake,” Claudia said. “Are you all just going to believe the King’s version of what happened?”
“As if anyone would believe your side of an issue instead?” Pali said. “You’re a thief, and now have even less claim to humanity than an Ozarian.”
Sallith only gave his son a blinking glance, and the boy turned and looked at his hands. Then Cole spoke up.
“Father, sorry to interrupt, but… are we human?”
“Yes,” Sallith said instantly. “You absolutely are. Pure humans. That thing cannot spread its blood.”
“It sounds like,” Pali started, “we’re people made from the ones the Fey consumed.”
“So we’re not real?” Maximus asked.
“Of course you’re real!” Sallith said. “Yes, you are likely born from little bits of all those people who were like me. But that’s how we all are. Everyone is just a collection of features and traits.”
“But are you related to us by blood at all?” Maximus asked.
Sallith turned to his bow. “To tell the truth, I don’t know. But you were expelled at the same point that I was. That has to mean something. Perhaps it was expelling all that it had of me. And some of me got added to more of its… material, becoming three infants.”
“You said your boys were called Chosen,” Rat said, eyeing Claudia for an instant. “Is there something special about them?”
Sallith nodded to the boys, allowing Pali to answer.
“We all have the power to read each other’s thoughts,” the prince said. “We’ve had it since as long as we can remember.”
“Really?” Rat asked. “Just between you three? Because I have a similar power. I can read the thoughts of those in a range around me. But it’s anyone.”
“Rat!” Claudia said.
“I think we’re in a special situation,” Rat said, “and the more information we all have, the better. This is what I should have told you earlier, Claudia. But now, to spite Merrian, I will tell all of you. Merrian, myself, and the King’s sons are apparently born from the Fey. I knew this, or at least of myself and Merrian. I’ve known it for the past decade, not long after meeting Merrian as a teenage lad. She told me what we were.”
“How did Merrian know?” Claudia asked.
“She never said. But based on what’s happened, it seems she was connected with the Ven Quari even back then, and they told her. Those elves are obsessed with the Fey, and everything about them. They believe the Fey are their gods. They may be right, too. Regardless, Merrian did something I could never forgive. She used my power for something evil. And all because I was a fool. I told her what I could do, how I could read thoughts of anyone nearby. I assumed she had the same ability, yet instead she was bizarrely quiet about that fact. Always avoiding, until…”
Whatever Rat’s history with Merrian was, he was getting lost in it, and Sallith was losing patience.
“It’s my theory that Kimora was also Chosen,” the King said. “Any idea what his power was?”
Claudia remembered what Kaj had said, back in the Dry Stalk Tavern, and fought against the silence until she could not resist.
“Fine. Yes. I believe if he has a Chosen power, it is the knowledge of when a person has lost the will to fight. Kaj said he always instinctively knew. It was how he never killed an opponent who surrendered. He would stop his blows even before they said anything.”
“So then,” Daliah said, “every Chosen released by the Fey has its own power, but it’s always related to reading the deepest parts of people.”
“Why are ours connected?” Maximus asked.
“I believe it’s one power per ‘birth,’” Brinne said. “Twins, triplets, or other group births would all have a power that is somehow shared among them.”
“Before we go any further,” Claudia said. “There’s something I wanted to say privately, and I wish I could, but I just can’t.”
“On with it,” Sallith said.
“The thing is, I know what Merrian’s Chosen power is. She told me. Merrian can read Rat’s thoughts,” Claudia said.
“What?” Sallith slammed his hands on the table to support a sudden rise. “Imbecile! You wait to say that now?”
“I realize what this means!” Claudia said. “That’s why I’m telling you before we discuss any further.”
“She can… what?” Rat said, standing up. “What does that mean? That’s far too specific, Claudia!”
“She said she inherently knew her power,” Claudia said, “it was something she could attach permanently to a single person, but only one, and it could never be transferred to another person. From there, she’d be able to read that person’s thoughts at all times, at any distance.”
Rat turned away and walked, hands clasped on top of his head, fingers pulling against each other until the bones popped.
Claudia kept going, “I don’t know if this shines light on anything between you and her, but—”
Rat tipped over an unused table, sending it into another, causing an avalanche of silverware. He placed his hands on the upended side of the wood, his back frighteningly broad from slouched shoulders. Then he turned to them. “Why would she tell you, Claudia? Because she also set you free, enabling you to tell me. Why would she do that?”
“She must be that confident,” Sallith said. “It no longer matters to her whether her secret is out. The Ven Quari seem to be doing something to make the Chosen a lot more well known.”
“I believe now would be a good time for me to make an entrance,” a new, regal voice said. In this visitor’s presence came a ear-itching, buzzing tone all through the room. Brinne smiled and bowed to face an immensely tall and hooded figure.
“This is Wisp,” Brinne said, “the Archmage King of Nimb Vard and lord of Thaumaturges.”
“I was concerned when both the King of Mirek and the Ven Quari cult chose to purchase skymetal goods from us,” the Archmage King said. “Now I see the latter was planning to dethrone the former.”
Then Rat walked right up to tall being, fast enough for Brinne to light up her hands in flame, ready to blast him.
“I want to go back to Mirek,” he said.
He shook his head at Claudia, stopping her.
“There is nothing that could make my presence here beneficial,” he said. “As long as I’m here, Merrian will know, on some level, what is going on. Fortunately, I have no idea what you’re planning, and that’s why I need to leave. Now.”
No one said anything, and the Thaumaturge King turned his perpetually black hood toward Brinne, faintly, and then back downward to his guest.
“I see no reason to disagree. Wait for me in the throne room. Wherever you walk, you will end up there.”
Rat nodded, sweating, and headed for the exit. Claudia followed, only for Brinne to hold out her arms, devoid of magical force but barring the way nonetheless.
Rat, think about what you’re doing! Can’t you wait, just a moment?
“Sit down,” Sallith barked. “We have business that he cannot be involved in.”
I missed you. Please stay safe, whatever you’re about to do.